Mariam Mola, is an enigma! Her reputation certainly precedes her. She has racked up several inches of newspaper columns for notoriously having her baby in prison while serving a sentence for fraud.
Her baby is barely 18 months old, and she has already reinvented herself as the polished and gracious founder and CEO of MentorMatcHER, a hugely popular mentoring business that connects emerging female entrepreneurs with established female power players and business gurus, such as Amanda Wakeley, Melissa Odabash and Vanessa Kingorie. So how did she do it?
I met up with Mariam for a coffee in a bustling Balans restaurant in Stratford, London. First impressions? This is a lady who knows what she wants and is going to get it. Her steely-eyed determination to succeed came across, somewhat unusual in a 27-year-old.
Arriving in the UK as a four-year old refugee, Mariam also speaks Lingala, French and Spanish. Her beginnings follow the usual path, her parents started life in the UK as cleaners, “I think my mum cleaned every Sainsbury’s in east London and Essex, and schools and all that kind of stuff. But they’re entrepreneurs now.”
She knew from a very young age that she was “different”. The usual careers held little appeal. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to be, most girls I knew wanted to be a doctor, or a nurse or something, and those things are important. My sister is in the health industry, but I just knew that I was different. Even when I had a job, in financial services, I was still like “Hmm there’s more to this!”.”
While exploring her options she kind of fell into the job in financial services at a young age, and made some poor choices. “I got involved with somebody I shouldn’t have; he was doing a lot of things that he shouldn’t have been doing. But at that age, when you’re 18, and your boyfriend drives a Bentley Continental or an Aston Martin, it’s everything you’re seeing on TV, so that was my inspiration, I was like yeah, I want that life. And then when I found out what he was doing, why was I going to leave? I was 18 then 19, and I learned to do it too and I got better and I wasn’t willing to leave that life alone… until the police came. And shit got real.”
She managed to score a bit of luck because the authorities left her for a time, possibly to pursue the bigger fish in the pond, so she got on with life.
Her entrepreneurial leanings were stoked when she launched and ran a designer shoe store, coincidentally two stores away from where we sat having the interview. She changed her life around, met someone and fell pregnant. But this period of happiness was short-lived. She said: “A few years had passed and I was happy where my life was going, and then the knock on the door came. And I realised there was no getting away from it. I was going to have to pay for my earlier crime.”
Mariam was extremely frank and open about telling her story to me. She very much wants to own it as she says the media had been distorting the truth. “For a long time because I didn’t want to own my truth, people were sharing it in ways I wasn’t comfortable with. But now, I’m happy they shared it for me because it’s allowed me to release the fear, to really talk about my own experience in my own way.” She’s got a book coming out later this month called Becoming a Woman of Purpose, in which she promises to divulge all the details.
I can’t help rooting for Mariam. A woman of purpose she certainly is. She has achieved phenomenal success with MentorMatcHER, even though it has been operating for barely a year. The business has been featured on Stylist Magazine, Look, The Guardian, to name a few high-profile publications. A quick browse through the website shows the most successful female business owners and professionals in the UK all signed up as mentors. Not long out of prison with an 18-month-old daughter, how did she do it?
It appears to be good old consistency, perseverance, and stamina! “You just have to be willing to not quit. And I’m bold with it, I don’t care what people say about me, I just have my eyes on the prize so much so that I’m going to win and I’m aggressive with that, you know? I think a lot of the time, when things happen to us, we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, “this one said this and that one doesn’t like me”. My response is “Ok, that’s fine, let’s keep on going”.”
Her journey to success is hard earned. Some of the experiences she has gone through would probably break some people. But it appears they merely helped to strengthen her iron resolve to succeed. “People think that having my daughter in prison was my biggest challenge, but that happened so fast, there was no controlling it. When you’re in jail, you don’t really have choices. The only choices you have are; do you want that pie that’s fallen on the floor? I was working in the kitchen at the prison, so I know it’s been on the floor. I was heavily pregnant cooking soup and the prison cookers are about this high, and that big and almost half my body size and I’m boiling pasta in it and it’s spitting at me. There is no health and safety. Or I’m making sandwiches and I know the expiry date has gone because it’s been in the freezer, the ham is okay but it smells. You’re pregnant and you can imagine you’re smelling all these things, you’re hungry, but you can’t eat that food until it’s lunch time. I’m cooking but I can’t eat it. As hard as that was, it was a close second.”
Mariam says the hardest thing she’s been through is, “Coming outside and facing stigma and facing judgement from people that think they know me, people that think they’ve understood me and then they make a judgment based on what they think.”
Mariam credits her church as being her rock. She is a very active member of SPAC Nation, and credits them, particularly her pastor, Tobi Adegboyega, as being her moral compass and biggest cheerleader. She tries to give back, “Every Saturday I go out on to the streets of Hackney, talking to young people, in McDonalds, talking to them about drugs, telling them about a better life, a new way of life, telling them about Jesus. And it is hard, it is challenging, because sometimes there’s a job that you have to do but that’s a sacrifice I want to continue doing.”
She credits motherhood as being her greatest achievement. And is extremely thankful for the huge support network,
“I’ve got the most unbelievable support system, my family are amazing, my daughter’s dad, he’s incredible. I couldn’t do these things unless someone was picking her up from nursery at 6 o’clock because I’m speaking at an event until 9. Then I’ve got a church service the following day, then I’m evangelising, handing out leaflets for my church for Tuesday services. All of these things, I’m not a one-man band.”
Finally, for someone whose life is so busy and active, it comes as no surprise to hear that her favourite things to do are sleeping and meeting people who make her smile.
“I love being around people that make me smile. It’s so important, it’s infectious. Even after everything I’ve been through, I’m just not a sad person; I’m always happy. My dad said something to me, he said when the paper thing happened, “What are you worried about? They’re going to use that paper to wrap fish n’ chips and it’ll be in the bin.”
There is no doubt in my mind that Mariam will achieve her ambitions. Yes, she has made mistakes, and she is the first one to hold her hands up to admit that. But she has paid her dues to society and she continues to strive every day to be the best version of herself. After all, what is that old biblical saying? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”
Visit the MentorMatcHER website